Proposition 174: Look Before You Leap : Even voucher fans shouldn't want this one to pass

The list of prominent individuals who rightly oppose Proposition 174 continues to grow. Proposition 174 is, of course, the statewide initiative on the November ballot that would supply parents with taxpayer-supported vouchers worth about $2,500 a year that they could use at private or parochial schools. Gov. Pete Wilson has now come out against the measure, as have President Clinton and Wilson's main Democratic rivals in the 1994 gubernatorial race--state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi.

Wilson's comments indicate why even many of those who support the idea of vouchers consider 174 a gamble: "I cannot responsibly advocate taking a risk that . . . could seriously worsen the state's budget situation and jeopardize funding for education."

THE RISK: The governor's concern was echoed in a recent poll of 1,400 Californians by Policy Analysis for California Education. PACE is a nonpartisan think tank that studies the effects of state policy on schools and citizens. Most of those polled were greatly disappointed by their public schools and wanted them overhauled--but not destroyed. That view was consistent across all racial and ethnic groups. A majority in the poll, including voucher supporters, said that they would oppose the program if it would reduce public school spending.

Those polled want to have more choice regarding schools, and they want private campuses to be among their options. But the poll also showed that they do not want an unregulated voucher system. They want private schools to meet state fiscal, academic and safety standards. Parents want credentialed teachers at those private schools, and they want their scores on standardized tests to be published. They want the private schools to be attentive to the special needs of students such as disabled children, and they want tuition capped to make it more affordable. And they would like to see a California choice program tried on a small scale first, not as a statewide plunge.

THE LOOPHOLES: Yet Proposition 174 fails to address any of those concerns. It does not require voucher schools to meet any standards of academic or fiscal accountability. Nor does it require that private schools publish test scores. In that regard, it leaves it up to the State Board of Education to determine whether private, voucher-redeeming schools would have to administer any tests based on national standards. But there's a problem here, too. There are, as yet, no federal academic standards and no tests against which to measure the achievement of students in California voucher schools. The Clinton Administration is developing such standards, but their publication is not expected for some time.

Proposition 174 does not require that voucher schools use credentialed teachers. It does not require that they meet the needs of disabled or disadvantaged students. The state Legislature could later decide to award supplemental money for special needs and for low-income students for transportation--but who knows whether it would and whether the amount would be sufficient if it did. And Proposition 174 most certainly does not cap private school tuition.

Finally, 174 would be an immediate, statewide, drastic change that would be extremely difficult to amend once implemented. It is anything but a small and measured pilot program. No one in California, or in the rest of the nation, has any experience with educational change on such a massive scale. Proposition 174 is, for California's children, simply a leap too far into a very uncertain future.

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